• Will the Voters Think?

    Winston Churchill is reputed to have once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.  If he did indeed say that, he was presumably trying to capture a somewhat paradoxical truth – that democracy, at its best, has great underlying virtues that are unmatched by other forms of government, but it can be easily subverted or exploited so that it produces unwelcome outcomes.

    The recent US presidential election makes the point well.  If Vladimir Putin’s purpose in intervening in that election was to demonstrate democracy’s propensity to elevate demagogues who are not up to the job, he will have been delighted with his success in producing disturbing evidence of how easily the voters can be misled.

    If democracy is to deliver what it promises, it must be underpinned by an informed and thoughtful electorate and it must not allow one body of opinion to be unfairly advantaged over others by virtue of an imbalance in financial resources, or in access to or control of the media.

    We do not need to look to a Hitler or a Donald Trump to recognise that the democratic process can lead to perverse outcomes.  Even in our own domestic politics, we are constantly offered instances of both democracy’s strengths and its weaknesses.

    One of the great virtues of a properly functioning democracy is that it will compel the rivals for power to compete as to which of them will best reflect the will of the people.  Last week’s budget, for example, could be seen as a welcome, not to say overdue, response to the demands made by public opinion.

    The government’s qualitative opinion polling will have told them that New Zealanders are increasingly concerned about the widening inequality and growing poverty in our society, and are particularly alarmed at the unaffordability of housing and the plight of the homeless.

    The measures proposed in the budget to address these issues could accordingly be seen as a proper reaction to the wishes of the people – exactly what democracy is meant to provide.

    But – with just four months to go before a general election – the budget could also be seen as a cynical attempt to divert attention from past failures, and to persuade people that we can now put those adverse consequences behind us as we enter upon the “broad, sunlit uplands”.

    It is in these circumstances that democracy is put to the test.  Will the electorate allow itself to be soft-soaped, or will it demand answers to the questions that should now be asked?

    What price has been paid, for example, for the “surplus” that Steven Joyce is apparently now distributing so generously?  Remember that a government surplus does little to alleviate the country’s continuing deficit – the one that really matters.  It means simply that the government has taken more from us in taxation than it has spent on public services or on investment for the future.

    It has managed to achieve this by leaving many important areas underfunded.  Those who depend on that funding – the poor, for example, those in need of effective health care, our schools, the voluntary sector, conservationists concerned about water quality, horticulturalists reliant on effective biosecurity, the list is virtually endless – have all suffered as a consequence of “the cuts”, and we are a weaker and poorer society as well.

    The budget largesse is, in other words, at best a belated attempt to undo, at least in part and temporarily, the harm suffered by so many parts of our society and economy as a consequence of years of underfunding.

    The proper democratic response should be to ask “why were these injuries to our society allowed to happen in the first place” and “why has it taken so long to remedy them” and “is dieting for long periods followed by the occasional splurge the best way to maintain a healthy weight”?

    Much will now depend, in terms of the health of our democracy, on whether voters are thoughtful enough to ask these questions.  Should we be dazzled by the offer of a pre-election selection of goodies, or should we consider the unwelcome consequences of another three years of unchanged policies – policies reflecting the conviction that the unfettered market must always prevail, whatever social and environmental deficits might be created?

    Bryan Gould

    27 May 2017



  1. Patricia says: May 28, 2017 at 6:01 amReply

    I believe that democracy in New Zealand has deteriorated since we embraced thevAmerican personality politics. John Key was the ultimate snake oil salesman and so was electable. Neither Bill English nor Andrew Little have the personality that the people seem to crave so the election is now up for grabs. The election year budget is then engineered to seduce the voters. And we buy it. Victoria University did some deep analysis of it – something the journalists should be doing – which showed Government was once again giving with one hand and taking with the other with the free market/small government being the goal. Did we see any pungent criticism of that? No just the emphasising of the good parts with nothing on the withdrawal of funds from other parts. http://www.interest.co.nz/news/87936/what-budget-2017-spending-promises-look-when-adjusted-inflation-and-population-growth

  2. KJT says: May 28, 2017 at 8:16 amReply

    “it can be easily subverted or exploited so that it produces unwelcome outcomes”.

    Simply being able to choose between two bad alternative leaderships, at intervals, as we are generously allowed to do, should not be confused with Democracy.